Filmquest Review: Man Vs. Snake is Better Than The King of Kong

I originally reviewed Man Vs. Snake: The Long And Twisted Tale Of Nibbler at Fantastic Fest. On Sunday, June 19 it will play at Filmquest before its release on June 24, so I present my review of the film again. Check back Sunday for an interview with Tim Mcvey and Dwayne Richard:

Well, I guess this video game competition documentary is a real thing now. It’s not just a one off with a few imitators. I’m happy about this because there are legitimate stories to be told in one medium about another medium. I think Man Vs. Snake is even better than The King of Kong. King of Kong is the most obvious comparison because it is hitherto the most popular documentary about a video game competition. It’s a tad unfair because Man Vs. Snake has its own story and gets to build off of the public’s awareness thanks to King of Kong, but if it helps the genre grow and thrive, this is my reaction.

Tim McVey of Iowa (not the Oklahoma City bomber) set a world record getting the firs score of one billion points in Nibbler in 1984. Since then others have attempted to beat the record, inspiring McVey to reclaim his title. The problem is it takes nearly 48 hours to play Nibbler long enough to attain scores that high.

Tim McVey and Nibbler in 1984

Tim McVey and Nibbler in 1984

Man Vs. Snake recaps the story of McVey’s childhood victory with engaging animation replicating 8-bit video games, and using the metaphor of mountain climbing to explain the difference between Nibbler and more well known games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. You see, Nibbler is not just about being good at the game. It’s about human endurance, and technical manufacturing. Joysticks break down after 48 straight hours, the power could go out, and other technical failures.

Fans of classic gaming will recognize characters like Twin Galaxies’ founder Walter Day and controversial Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell. McVey is a new character to previous gaming documentaries, as are his challengers Enrico Zanetti and Dwayne Richard.

Directors Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir have an endearing perspective on the healthy competition. Re-enactments in documentaries are never ideal, so animating scenes for which there is no footage is a clever solution, allowing them to elevate the intensity of a video game record with emergency phone calls and cartoon spit takes. It’s winking enough at competitive movies to use “Eye of the Tiger,” but irreverent enough to stop the music while fumbling around with a bulky arcade cabinet. There are some practical issues movie addresses, namely how do they go to the bathroom when there’s no pause button on the game?

The practical human component makes Nibbler a more Herculean task than, say, Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong has a finite end, a kill screen which was a pivotal plot point in King of Kong. Nibbler is infinite. It lasts as long as a human being can stay awake and not lose all their lives. So then that gets into questions of how does one train for a double all nighter, and what motivates a man to put himself through it? The film captures how the hours wear on Tim and Dwayne in a way that simply wasn’t the main issue with Donkey Kong.

Of course, the individual characters make it different too. There is intrigue between Tim and Dwayne and Enrico, but it’s not the underhandedness of Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. Dwayne is unpredictable but not deceptive. Tim’s wife is also a vital character for her support, encouragement and even participation in Tim’s achievement. In this story, Mitchell becomes a twisted sort of Mr. Miyagi to Tim.

Independent of comparison, Man Vs. Snake is the ultimate human drama. The title is cute but it’s less about man vs. snake or man vs. Nibbler. It’s really about man against himself. How far can one push oneself, and what is it all worth? These are important life questions that get answered by this very specific contest. It’s what I deal with every time I sit down to write. I feel this review could be better but I want everyone to know about Man Vs. Snake so I hope it will do.